Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Some Class-Related Reading Materials for The Art of Majesty

Lisa (our visiting correspondent from the Black elite *Smile*) brought up several excellent points that I feel deserve amplification while we discuss the class issues raised by the Art of Majesty series.

One point is the exclusion that is inherent in any elite group. I believe that Black folks often forget that this is a human phenomenon. We often act as if this is some peculiar, distasteful behavior that only rich Black folks engage in. What we're forgetting is that an "elite" is not an elite if anybody can join! Since I've never been a social-climbing sort of "B & B" member of the Black middle class, it has never bothered me that the Black elite practice social exclusion. I've always said, "Let them have their little clubs and cliques unto themselves." Exclusion is an ancient and eternal human practice that often serves a valid purpose. Barbara W. Tuchman wrote a fascinating book about life in 14th century France called A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century. Wealthy merchants trying to buy their way into the existing nobility, and the nobles' efforts to keep them out is an eternal game:

"Definition increasingly concerned the born nobles in proportion as their status was diluted by the ennoblement of outsiders." pg. 17.

"The upper level of the Third Estate, made up of merchants, manufacturers, lawyers, office-holders, and purveyors to the crown, had nothing left in common with its working-class base except the fact of being non-noble. To overcome that barrier was every bourgeois magnate's aim. While climbing toward ennoblement and a country estate, he emulated the clothes, customs, and values of the nobles and on arriving shared their tax exemption---no small benefit. . . . Nobles and clergy resented the royal favor shown and the opulence allowed to officials chosen from outside their ranks." pg. 157.

Many of us whine about the Black elite's exclusion of, and frequent disdain for, others. I question why people are seeking to cuddle up to such persons in the first place. From my perspective, the problem isn't the Black elite's attitudes toward others. The problem is weak-minded, insecure middle class or nouveau riche people seeking validation and "strokes" from them. Seek validation from God, from true family, and from true friends. NOT from the Black elite.

Another point is a person's relationship with material things. One tell-tale sign of striver-dysfunction (strivers who haven't made the smooth transition into the middle class) is their lack of ease regarding material things. Material things are emotionally charged items for them in a way that most "B & Bs" (born members of the middle class) don't experience. As I've heard it put, a lot of strivers "just aren't 'cool' about stuff." I've heard them described as "frantic" about material things, particularly things that they consider to be status markers. Don't get me wrong, B & Bs have issues when it comes to material things. Just not quite the same issues (or the same motivations behind the issues) as dysfunctional strivers.

It's important to note that there are many poor and working class Black folks who don't have emotionally charged relationships with material things. My grandparents (who were "officially" poor) were examples of this. They would have liked to have been able to provide more for their children, but they didn't have "hang ups" about material things.

This point about people's relationship with material things was mentioned in a book by A'Lelia Bundles called On Her Own Ground: The Life and Times of Madam C.J. Walker. The author is the great-great-granddaughter of Madam C.J. Walker. She talks about what Madam Walker's daughter Lelia found appealing about a man named Wiley Wilson:

"But Lelia's primary focus was her new beau, Wiley Wilson, a pharmacist who was completing his medical studies at Howard University. . . Wiley impressed Lelia, at least in part, because he was not in the least intimidated by her status or her money. Two years her senior, he was the youngest of three dashing, well-educated sons of a successful Arkansas farmer and cattle rancher. His elder brothers, John and Ed, had attended Lincoln University in Pennsylvania in the 1890s. Then, while Ed was enrolled at Union Theological Seminary, John returned to Pine Bluff, Arkansas, and became a sheriff. But after arresting a prominent white man, he was prohibited from apprehending whites. Incensed, he quit the force, purchased a saloon and openly operated two whorehouses. With some of his considerable earnings, he sent Wiley to Howard University's School of Pharmacy, then bankrolled a drugstore for his brother." pg. 245.

"Lelia, however, was so smitten with a man as accustomed to the trappings of wealth as she that she was oblivious to his inadequate attentiveness." pg. 246. (emphasis added)

It's difficult to interact with people who have issues about material things when you don't. Even if you do have issues about material things, it's hard to interact with people who don't have the same sorts of issues.

Another thing that this passage points out is the true origin of any elite family: From ancient times to today, every elite person is descended from either a successful merchant (legal or illegal) or a successful warlord. Over generations, their money "ages," and the family becomes "respectable" to the point that they can then exclude other successful merchants or warlords from their social circles. And so the human cycle continues.

*Readers' Note: Please post comments for this on the Art of Majesty, Part 1 thread. Thank you!

No comments: